This is my first review of a book from The History Press. I received the book at no charge in exchange for a fair and honest review, from my point of view. Each book I review for The History Press will be a local history book. This book is set in the Missouri Ozarks, at West Plains, Missouri, a few hours drive east of where I live in a southern Missouri cabin. West Plains, today, is very active in promotion of the Ozarks and its cultural heritage.
The promotional information on the book is worth sharing, to set the stage for my review comments:
"The 1928 explosion that transformed a West Plains dance hall into a raging inferno sparked feverish national media attention and decades of bitterness in the Missouri town it tore apart. And while the story inspired a popular country song, the firestorm that claimed thirty-nine lives remains an unsolved mystery. In this first book on the notorious catastrophe, Lin Waterhouse presents a clear account of the event and its aftermath that judiciously weighs conflicting testimony and deeply respects the personal anguish experienced by parents forced to identify their children by their clothing and personal trinkets." [Bold added by the reviewer - see comments below]
First, I am impressed by the diligent research that Lin Waterhouse performed in order to accomplish what I have highlighted in bold type, above. Sometimes these descriptions from the publisher are largely fluff. This is an accurate portrayal of what you get as you read this book. As a family historian and genealogist I have spent countless hours reviewing microfilm of newspapers in libraries searching for information on a single family. How many hours must she have spend searching these four or more newspapers' microfilm from the 1920s to come up with the engrossing details of the lives of these people and this community that are included in the book. When I finished, I felt I knew each person fairly well, whether victim or survivor.
Second, her pacing is impressive, to me. My first novel had about half the number of characters she covers in this narrative. I know how hard it is (and I wish I had been as successful) to write in such a way that the reader can keep even reasonable track of them. I believe she did that very well. And, she comes back to key characters multiple times in ways that moves the powerful story along at a proper pace. I appreciated the background information, set in the time period, that she provides the reader without distracting from the ongoing story and the mystery of the explosion source which is at the heart of that story.
Third, I was raised in a small, rural, heartland community much like West Plains and still read the paper there regularly. As I read the book, her descriptions and narrative allowed me to identify very clearly with the impact this tragedy had across the fiber of the entire community. Many, if not most, of the victims were young people who, except for this tragedy, were expected to be the leaders of this community for years into the future. Their loss changed this community forever. Her interviews with a few key people provide some insight into that impact on the community.
Finally, I highly recommend this book to anyone with empathy for this type of mystery and/or setting in this time period. It reads easily, though you will find yourself wanting to re-read portions to be sure you really did read what you thought you did. I had trouble laying it down - I wanted to know what Lin Waterhouse was going to tell me next about this story. I believe you will want to know as well.
Lin Waterhouse will be holding a Meet the Author at the West Plains Public Library on Saturday, Jan. 22nd, at 2 p.m.
Happy Reading! ;-)